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A Pig in the Desert: Why St. Anthony the Great is Shown with a Pig

Why is there a Pig with St. Anthony the Great?

Many saints are often depicted with certain symbols that help us to immediately recognize them in a painting or statue. St. Patrick is often depicted wearing green and holding a three-leaf clover because he was said to have used the plant to teach about the Trinity. St. Teresa of Avila is shown with a quill pen and a book because of her famous mystical writings on prayer. And, many statues of St. Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he is holding a lily as a symbol of his purity.

This week, I would like to write about St. Anthony the Abbot and why is he connected with pigs. He is not only often depicted with a pig, he is also the patron saint of pigs and pig herders.

 

It should be mentioned that St. Anthony the Abbot should not be confused with St. Anthony of Padua. The latter Anthony is often depicted with the Child Jesus because he was seen holding the Child Jesus when he went into ecstasy. Instead, St. Anthony the Abbot, who is also known as St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Anthony the Great, lived many centuries before St. Anthony who is the patron saint of lost articles. (The reason he is the patron saint of lost articles is a story for another postcard.)

There is, it might be said, a bit of uncertainty about why St. Anthony is connected with pigs. That is mainly because there are several plausible explanations and no clear understanding as to which one is the original reason.

First, however, it might be good to know something about St. Anthony. He is a fairly popular saint throughout Europe as evidenced by his appearance in the artwork found in a large number of churches and religious houses throughout the Old World. That is something of note because, of course, St. Anthony never actually set foot in Europe.

The Early Years

St. Anthony was born in 251 in Heracleus, Egypt which is connected to the modern day city of Tell Belim in the same country. The city lies about 50 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea and 15 miles west of the Red Sea. His parents were wealthy and their children included St. Anthony and his younger sister.

From all accounts, St. Anthony was raised in the Christian faith by his pious parents, and he was known for his obedience to them and for absorbing what he learned about the faith at home and in church. By the time he was 20 years of age, however, both of his parents had died and he received the family inheritance. At this point, he made a radical change in his life.

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A Radical Call

One Sunday at mass, St. Anthony heard the reading from St. Matthew's Gospel when Our Lord challenged the rich young ruler by saying, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me." (19:21) The words struck deep in his heart, and he knew that they were meant especially for him. He also took it as an answer to prayer because he had only recently been pondering in his heart how he might imitate the disciples who had left everything to follow the Lord.

Accordingly, with some of his family's wealth, he made arrangements for his younger sister to be cared for by a group of women who had made perpetual vows of chastity. Then, he sold the rest of his land and possessions and distributed the proceeds among the poor.

He then began to live a life of work, prayer, solitude, and learning. In order to continue to grow in his faith, St. Anthony would meet with holy people and ask them questions and then memorize their answers. He was also known for his ability to truly absorb Scripture which he took in through each mass. He worked with his hands to earn his keep. And St. Anthony began to pray throughout the day as he knew the importance of prayer for growing in holiness. For his abode, he chose to live in an unused tomb outside the village.

Today, we would consider that he lived the life of a semi-hermit. At that time, there was no concept of monks or a monastery, but there was a practice of men, primarily, but also some women, who would lead lives of prayer with some attachment to the local parish.

St. Anthony learned to live a simple life in which he had one meal a day in the evening which consisted almost exclusively of bread. He only drank water, and he slept either on the bare ground or on a simple woven mat. His work consisted in making mats which were traded for his very basic needs.

As time went on, his life of solitude continued to grow, and he would go long stretches of time before he would leave his empty sepulcher. Finally, at around the age of 35, he sought to live a life of complete solitude in order to devote himself wholly to prayer and penance.

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Seeking More Solitude and Disciples

Setting out for the desert, St. Anthony crossed to the other side of the Nile where he was able to find an abandoned fort which he made into his new home. He had arranged for bread to be brought to him periodically, but it was done without coming face-to-face with the deliverer of the bread. Instead, St. Anthony then proceeded to go almost twenty years without seeing a person's face.

However, he did not live in complete solitude as word spread about the holy man who lived in the desert, and he would have visitors who sought his spiritual guidance and prayers. Enough of these men began to follow him that he decided he to provide them some structure. These students were eventually organized into two separate groups of hermits or what might be considered early monks. St. Anthony guided them in developing a regular pattern of spiritual disciplines. Because of this organization, he is consider the father of monasticism.

Breaking the Solitude

After a period of about twenty years, St. Anthony did leave his solitude on several occasions. First, around the year 311, during the persecution of the Christians by Maximus, St. Anthony left the fort to help comfort and encourage the Christians of Alexandria.

Later, in order to assist in the fight against the heresy of Arianism, he went to Alexandria where he worked with St. Athanasius who was that stalwart champion of the true faith. The two became good friends, and eventually St. Athanasius would write a biography of St. Anthony.

It is also recorded that later in life he arranged to meet with his sister who had become the head of a community of women who were committed to lives of prayer and penance.

However, the majority of his life was spent alone as he sought to be faithful to his calling. Despite the austerities of his lifestyle, St. Anthony maintained robust health as was described by those who saw him over the years. He died at the age of 105, and it was reported that he still had all of his teeth and looked quite vigorous.

The Possible Connections with Pigs

So what is the connection with St. Anthony and pigs? Here are several various explanations.

The first explanation is that the pig represents evil that St. Anthony had to overcome as he fought the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Pigs, for obvious reasons, are associated with the ground and the earth. Thus, the idea is that some artists wanted to depict how St. Anthony defeated the earthly temptations by including a pig to represent the worldly sins.

Another related explanation is that the pig represents the demonic. As St. Athanasius records in his biography, St. Anthony experienced many attacks from the devil which sometimes came in the form of wild animals perhaps even wild pigs. And the image of wild pigs brings to mind the story in the Gospels where Jesus permitted the demons to enter the pigs who then promptly drowned themselves. (Luke 8:32-33)

A third possible association with pigs is related to skin disease. St. Anthony was known to be an intercessor for people who were who suffering from various skin diseases. The reason for that was probably because of the excellent health which he maintained throughout the course of his life in spite his ascetic lifestyle.

Skin diseases were often treated using pork fat because it would reduce the inflammation and itching. In order to make the connection between St. Anthony and his patronage for sufferers of skin diseases, the artists might have included a pig with the saint.

A later explanation is related to an order of that was founded centuries after his death--the Hospitallers of St. Anthony--who took the saint for their patron. The order was founded around 1095 by Gaston of Dauphiné who started the ministry of giving aid to the poor in thanksgiving from his own miraculous cure of a disease known as St. Anthony's Fire. The disease which is now known as ergotism was of epidemic proportions and responsible for the deaths of many in Europe over the centuries.

The order was supported in part by pigs. First, the order was allowed to raise pigs. Second, people would donate a pig to the order, raise the pig themselves, and give it to the order on the feast of St. Anthony which is the 17th of January.

Finally, there is the most appealing explanation (at least for pigs) which is that the saint healed a wild pig and through that action befriended the animal who remained with him in the desert. Of course, St. Anthony was a vegetarian so the pig would not ever have to worry about becoming his dinner.

In celebration of this story, there is a tradition of bringing domestic animals, including pigs, to the parish on January 17th in order to have them blessed by the priest.

Whichever story made the first connection between the saint and pigs, eventually pig herders latched on to his association with pigs and he became their patron as well as the patron of pigs, of course, and domestic animals, in general.

Picture: St. Anthony with a Pig

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